The eight days of the wartime Yalta Conference in February 1945 had a major impact on history, down to the present day. Decisions made by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin affected the lives of many and led to much speculation about what really happened. With painstaking research, including documents from the Soviet archives that were only declassified in the 1990s, Harvard professor S.M. Plokhy gives us perhaps the most complete picture we are likely to get of the proceedings in his engrossing Yalta: The Price of Peace.

Plokhy demonstrates that, contrary to the opinions of some, the Allies did as well as could be expected at Yalta, despite serious missteps. Roosevelt, for example, is often criticized for yielding too much. But Plokhy argues that FDR was in command of the major issues and was able to achieve his main goals: to win the war against Japan with help from the USSR and to get Stalin to cooperate in establishing the United Nations. As the player with the most troops on the ground, Stalin was in a position of advantage, and his negotiating skills were aided enormously by Soviet espionage, which alerted him to issues that would be raised by FDR and Churchill and instances in which those two disagreed.

Plokhy touches on such particulars as FDR’s disdain for empires, Churchill’s desire to expand the reach of the British Empire and Stalin’s drive to expand the territory and control of the USSR, and readers will learn how each side misjudged the other’s intentions. Yet, as Plokhy writes, “by design and by default, the Big Three managed to put together elements of an international system that helped preserve the longest peace in European history.”

This balanced and detailed study is an excellent source for understanding the last 65 years of U.S. and European history. Although the Yalta Conference may remain controversial, it is hard to disagree with Plokhy’s judgment that when the leaders of democracies make alliances with dictators, there is always a price to be paid. 

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